God Talk 101: Immigration, St. Benedict & Welcoming the Stranger (Part 2/2)

Liturgical Catechesis: Why does the priest make two circles counterclockwise and then one clockwise with the thurible (the metal censer in which incense is burned) around the bread and wine?

This gesture was customary during the former way of celebrating Mass. Circular motions are a symbol for the universe. It is made in a way which symbolically places the host and chalice (soon to become the “Lord of the Universe”) in the center of the symbol of the universe. We hear this verbally at the beginning of the preparation of the gifts when the priest says, “Blessed are you Lord, God of heaven and earth…”

Last week I began comparing Jonathan Merritt’s thoughts of “neighbor” to the Benedictine idea of “guest.” Merritt spent time in the Middle East and has witnessed the carnage in that part of the world first-hand. He wrote about it in his book, Learning To Speak God From Scratch.

He asks difficult and uncomfortable questions surrounding the question, “Who is our neighbor?” He inquires about contemporary American immigration policies and practices. He points to the seemingly intractable wrestling match between two goods. The good of national security is on the one hand. The good of justice in the face of such horrible human suffering is on the other hand.

“Who is my neighbor?” Merritt tells the story of America’s best-known neighbor. I quote Merritt at length in the following paragraphs.

Fred (aka, “Mr. Rogers”) got into television because he “hated” the medium. Faced with the decision to either sour on television itself or work to better the medium, he chose the latter and began pursuing a career in broadcasting. Fourteen years later, he created one of the most beloved American television shows of all time.

In the wake of World War II, when men (many of them veterans), were having trouble expressing their feelings, Fred Rogers recognized that the children of these quiet giants might also have difficulty expressing their emotions. He worried that the type of programming that was becoming normative would spawn a generation of emotionally bankrupt Americans.

He imagined himself as something of a surrogate parent, which is why other children never appeared on the show. He didn’t want to create a sentiment of sibling rivalry. Fred Rogers knew the power his words contained, which is why he reviewed his shows and scripts with Dr. Margaret McFarland, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. Before taping an episode, a team of child psychology experts reviewed the script’s effects on children’s cognitive and emotional development. He talked to children like adults, teaching kids to face the world’s hard realities and not shrink back. Emotions should be embraced, not buried.

Rogers’s approach to his craft and calling was the result of his Christian faith. Rogers was an ordained minister, and since he left seminary to pursue television, the local branch of his denomination gave him a special commission as an evangelist to children.

This unlikely TV evangelist seemed to be always aware that his vocational calling was originated from on high. He believed “the space between the television set and the viewer is holy ground,” though he trusted God to do the heavy lifting.

In this regard, Mr. Rogers was the porter of the monastery of the heart. Viewers were not just members of an audience. They were guests. He welcomed them into a safe place. Pope John Paul II once said, “A guest in the house is God in the house.” Rogers’ approach almost has a Benedictine ring to it:

In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is especially in them that Christ is received; for as far as the rich are concerned, the very fear which they inspire wins respect for them.

In the salutation of all guests, whether arriving or departing, let all humility be shown. Let the head be bowed or the whole body prostrated on the ground in adoration of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons

No matter which topic an episode featured, there was one word Rogers always spoke: neighbor. For him, a neighbor was not just the person who lived next door to you that you waved to when retrieving your mail. It may not be someone who looked like you or dressed like you or frequented the same coffee shop. It was anyone whose path you crossed, especially if that person was in need. Which is to say, Mister Rogers’s definition was almost identical to Jesus’.

In 1999, when Fred Rogers was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame, he reflected on his career:

I feel that those of us in television are chosen to be servants. It doesn’t matter what our particular job [is]. We are chosen to help meet the deeper needs of those who watch and listen, day and night…. Life isn’t cheap. It’s the greatest mystery of any millennium, and television needs to do all it can to broadcast that—to show and tell what the good in life is all about. But how do we make goodness attractive? By doing all we can to bring courage to those whose lives move near our own. By treating our “neighbor” at least as well as we treat ourselves.



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